When Tampa Bay Devil Rays owner, Stuart Stemberg, changed the name to just the Tampa Bay Rays he did so with the statement that it was done to shine on the good things of Tampa Bay. The Chamber of Commerce should have been thrilled but ever since Major League Baseball had come to the West coast of Florida, there had been little joy and that included the year they won the pennant. Currently what owner Stemberg's Ray is shining on is vast arrays of empty seats. Admittedly the Tropicana Dome leaves almost everything to be desired in the way of being adequate (They were one of the last to remove Astroturf.)but it is a covered, air conditioned place in which to play ball and, in Florida, that's a good thing. Particularly when the air, already redolent with humidity, Tampa Bay lacks the winds that make the Marlins in Miami a (barely) better place to be. In a checkered career “Trop Stadium” (named by an Orange Juice company) has hosted a hockey team, an arena football team(Which was the first tenant, it stood vacant for some while after construction was finished.) and a catchall for everything from an NCAA sanctioned football bowl game to traveling rock and roll acts. And, the latest problem, some of the team members are accusing the fans of not being loyal.
I think we need to pause for a moment and consider that rather unusual set of circumstances. Fans for all sports are frequently outspoken in their beliefs that players are whores and don't give a damn about where they play so long as they're well paid to play there. Now we have a team fretting because not enough people show up to, one supposes, appreciate them. Indeed a few nights past they had the opportunity to clench their division (they lost to Baltimore as it happens) only 14,000 people showed up. And this is a place that seats 45,000. To put it another way, everyone attending the game could easily have two or more seats on either side of themselves. In coach on a plane this would be terrific but for a profit making organization, no. It's not as if the team was bad, quite the opposite, they've done very well over the few years of their existence but the figures reveal that rather than building a fan base, they're losing their fans. Or the few they regularly had. But players worrying about fan loyalty, and this when their club will in all likelihood make it to the playoffs, is bizarre.
Tampa fought for years to get a major league anything and, finally, they got the Buccaneers which rewarded the city by promptly ending up in a Super Bowl. It was great. Then came a hockey team. (I'm one of those old farts who find hockey played South of the Mason-Dixon line and West of the Mississippi [except for Washington and Oregon] strange.) And, finally, after having been passed up in the first round of expansion teams, they got one in round two. This should have been the Platinum inside the Silver lining but it somehow wasn't. To start with their dome was poorly constructed and, three years after it opened, it closed for extensive renovations. Another wad of cash was spent on it just before the new baseball team began play but even then it was clear it was a stopgap measure. What was needed was a new facility and one was planned. It was to be by the “shimmering waters of St. Petersburg Bay “ with a view of the water, the field and, well, just everything. On paper it looked terrific but also on paper it was going to cost a whale of a lot of money and that and squabbling between various municipalities killed it.
For whatever else may be said about it, Florida hasn't the healthiest economy and, were it not for the Disney Organization and the whopping taxes they pay as well as the enormous crowds they attract, the bottom line to income in The Sunshine State would be a bit cloudy. Traditionally a retirement heaven and haven, it now finds itself with a building boom that, after 2007, went bust.(Currently the unemployment rate in the Tampa area is 11.9%) Don't wave cash in a newly minted housing development or the thundering hooves of real estate agents may run you down. The largest segment of the population not employed by government works in the “hospitality” industry and, of those, the greatest number are employed by----wait for it---Disney. The only attraction to never have an “800” number so that visitors could call for nothing. It's a group devoted entirely to itself and any cross over assistance to other things is unlikely. Keep in mind that this is a corporation that sued a child's day care centre for making unauthorized use of likenesses of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.( And won even after a great deal o f very negative publicity. Their stance was that it was the principle of the thing and, having won, asked the place be closed. What would Walt have thought?) What Disney doesn't own is of no interest to them and that includes all sports teams save the Mighty Ducks in California.
The geography of Tampa/St. Petersburg isn't helpful. Imagine a C clamp facing left. Tampa is in the upright part with St. Petersburg in the downward peninsula from the top. Moreover, there are indentations of water and channels all about that confuse the flow of traffic. As happens “Trop” Field is in that peninsula and inconvenient to practically everything. This is a metropolitan area with a particularly good internal transit system, one that focuses on moving people to business and necessities just not amusement so the field is effectively isolated save for those who choose to drive. And if they do, they'll find another wack job perpetrated by the Rays. Certainly there's no free parking but there's a multi-tiered pricing structure that has no relevance to anything. It's rather like the five tiered ticket system. It can actually be more expensive to buy a ticket at the gate than online in advance. Within the dome where you sit, depending on what you paid, guarantees nothing. Patrons have complained that they expect there to be a certain price fixing when it comes to seats but what exists is more price gouging. Indeed the single largest complaint about everything to do with the Ray is that it costs too damn much for what you get. And now the players are complaining about fan loyalty? After years of desperately seeking a major league team it often seems that Tampa and the Rays management has gone out of their way to make attendance a torturous experience. A Saturday game is more like being sent to detention.
Then there's the age thing. More than practically any other state, Florid has a large population of older persons living on fixed incomes that, at best, allow for few luxuries. And, to them, attending a ball game is just that, a luxury. This is also a group that has usually arrived from somewhere else and their loyalties still remain with Boston or Chicago or wherever home may have been. (Long before the Royals and Rangers, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Nebraska bled Cardinal Red. [Downstate Illinois was a toss up. Close to St. Louis, meant an affinity to the Cardinals, but further North was divided between the Cubs and the White Sox.] My point is that building loyalty is a hard fought battle. To some of the locals, the Rays are just another attraction to compliment all the other diversions. It was necessary to have them as they filled out the laundry list of things one had to have to attract tourists. This presumed a lot and worked from a thought process that was wholly wrong. Tourism in summer in Florida is to the beach or to DisneyWorld, not to the ball game. One hardly drives or flies hundreds, even thousands, of miles to go to a ballgame. National past time that it is, there's nothing new or different about it. If you've seen one baseball game, you've a general idea of what another will be like. Also most tourists like their sights on the beaten track. Trop Field is not. Indeed to get to it you'd better have at least a GPS or a local relative who's a cop and can give you adequate and accurate directions.
The time preceding the opening day, the Grapefruit Season, is popular and well attended all over the state. This is also the time of the snow birds but about the time the “real” season begins, their migration north begins and another group with time and money to spend disappears. And, unfortunately, the season ends just before the flock returns. Building a fan base when it's hot and humid is a hard thing to do and the Rays have not found a way to the community.
In some ways Tampa defines why not every place that wants a team should have one. This is to take nothing from the very credible play of the Rays, their record is excellent. However, when you think of Tampa what do you think of that might draw you there? Disney is in the middle of Florida more convenient to Orlando. One of the most attractive beaches (Sanibel and Captiva Islands) but that's near Ft. Myers. Sea World? Again, it's not the only one and would you divert to see that? Yet it's more likely you'd go to that than a Rays game. Baseball isn't an acquired taste like Jai Alai or Professional Lacrosse but it does rely heavily on repeat, local business. There are 162 games a year, not all of them at home, but apart from being a season ticket holder (and this is true in many places) the impetus to go to continually go to the games isn't there. The NFL surely holds the iron fist when it comes to almost mandatory attendance. If you're lucky enough to live in a city that has a team, you'll be lucky if they play at home more than eight or nine times in one year. Unlike baseball, if you miss a chance to go to a game, it may be next year before the opportunity presents itself again. With baseball it could easily be that there's another game, even two of them, tomorrow or the day following.
But let me close with a return to lack of fan loyalty as that charge just leaves me incredulous. Remember the days when players were approachable, would linger to sign autographs and chat with their fans? In most places today with the exception of individual players who are responsive to the public, players treat those attending as the cheering back drop to their terrific doings. Now when the fans are disappearing and the silence becomes obvious, it's the fans fault that they're not loved. Tampa may be the current glaring case of finance and poor planning washing out local interest but with hard times here to stay for a while, they may be the model for other places and other sports.
I'll be gone next week so please give whoever fills in for me the same great reception you've always accorded me.